Steelers vs Panthers Film Review: Big Nickel Defense

I’ve mentioned over the course of the last few days that the Pittsburgh Steelers broke out their big nickel sub-package look for a few snaps in their preseason finale, a 10-0 shutout loss to the Carolina Panthers.

In the big nickel, the Steelers employ a four-man defensive front with two true defensive ends and two defensive tackles, taking the outside linebackers off the field and often employing a safety at the second level of the defense next to the inside linebackers.

This is actually not much different to how the Steelers used their base nickel defense a year ago, aside from the personnel. Instead of adding linemen, they used ends as tackles and the outside linebackers as ends.

As the team has been finding out, the smaller defensive look has been problematic when opponents target the personnel package to attack with the running game. This became a serious issue last year, and this preseason has demonstrated that it is still a concern.

Whether or not the Steelers actually intend to seriously consider using this package on any kind of consistent basis, it is an option that they can turn to in order to match up with opposing receivers while still setting up against the run.

So how did they fare against the Panthers in this look? They only ran it once with their first-team personnel, but the look saw three snaps with the second-team unit in the game. In total, they faced three runs and one pass.

The first snap came on the Panthers’ opening drive. They’d just converted on fourth and one. On first down, the Steelers forced an incompletion, then turned to their four-man front, with Stephon Tuitt and Brett Keisel at end and Cam Thomas and Steve McLendon at tackle.

With Keisel holding the right point and McLendon gaining penetration, the running back was flushed around left tackle, where Lawrence Timmons was waiting, who proceeded to bring him down for no gain, with the help of Thomas coming off his man, and eventually Tuitt as well. So far, so good for the look.

It wasn’t until late in the half that the Steelers turned back to the big nickel look, but when they did, they utilized Ethan Hemer and Josh Mauro at the end positions and Daniel McCullers and Roy Philon at tackle. Safety Shamarko Thomas was lined up in the box.

At the start of the play, Mauro stayed home to track the option play. The rest of the unit worked down the line to the defensive left side, and Terence Garvin eventually flashed in to make the tackle, assisted by Hemer and McCullers, after a three-yard gain.

On second down, the offense showed a similar look, but the quarterback kept the ball and ran a rollout to the right. Hemer pursued, but he found a receiver between Garvin and Thomas before he could get there, resulting in a first down.

After a few more plays, the Steelers went back to the four-man front on the same drive, which this time was another running play, on first and 10 following a roughing the passer penalty. With Vince Williams crashing in to seal the edge, McCullers was able to beat his man and get on his inside shoulder, charging down the line and twisting the running back down for a loss of one on the play.

It’s obviously a very small sample size, and in the final preseason game, but the Steelers did find success against the run with the big nickel while being able to put five defensive backs on the field. Perhaps this will offer encouragement for future experimentation with this package into the regular season.

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